The Optimistic Gardener

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Optimistic Gardener


You don’t have to be an optimist to be a gardener, but it helps. My first attempt at gardening in the mid-1990s was a complete disaster. Undeterred, I pressed on and have had much more success in subsequent years, which I think is cause for “growing” optimism. Based on stories I’ve heard from others, I’m not alone. How do we get from failure to renewed optimism as the cycle invariably repeats?

Some successful gardeners I know benefited from years of apprenticeship under parents or grandparents. They haven’t read much on the subject and can’t tell you why certain plants behave in certain ways; they just know it because they have seen the pattern for decades. Others have read and studied extensively to learn all about the nuances of plant science. They take great pride in pronouncing the botanical names for plants. I think these folks should earn a special merit badge for knowing these complicated terms; it sounds really impressive when you talk with them. There also are those who just love to play in the dirt and gardening is an excuse for doing so as an adult. I fall into the last category. In the end, true gardeners come to realize success is rooted in the soil. It’s all about compost – lots of it.

We all have different journeys as gardeners and unique perspectives based on our experiences. But we share one thing in common – a tendency to be optimistic.

There is another population we should recognize as they are growing in number. They are people who would not describe themselves as gardeners; they just like flowers. I think the difference between people who like flowers and those who garden is that gardeners typically have spent a lot more money recovering from failure.

Flower lovers are mostly interested in annuals since they show well for much of the growing season in bright colors. I have to admit they are seductive – relatively inexpensive, immediately pay-off and available in large quantities. However, I am reminded of a friend who was not fond of annuals and preferred to refer to them as “terminals.” He has a point. Maybe gardeners generally share a longer term view of the future. A neighbor of mine years ago, who had very interesting gardens, gave me a piece of advice after seeing my struggle with failure. He said, “Just take it one bed at a time.”

The optimism of gardeners comes with experience and most say the key to success is repeated failure. While some get discouraged and decide to pursue other interests, my view is that these were flower lovers simply masquerading as gardeners. The real gardeners find a way to overcome reality with optimism.

Whenever a gardener approaches a new garden space or one that is to be reclaimed, the first step is to stop and look around. Sit quietly and ask a very simple question, “How can I cooperate with this space?” It’s true we can garden by brute force and actually produce some impressive results. Weak soil conditions can be artificially and rapidly boosted, irrigation planned and installed, and plant material adapted. We all do this sometimes. The challenge is to slow down and consider the natural setting first. How does the sun move over this area? What are the natural soil conditions? How does this area drain? Such questions cause us to see the contours of the landscape differently. Learning to work with what is already there is a significant factor in successful gardening. While these observations do not define the future, it forces us to see the context for the work ahead and visualize the possibilities. To be a gardener is to be thoughtful about planning.

The best garden planning also takes into consideration the possible threats to long-term success. There are always things we can do little about. A severe storm can undo much of what we have done. A few wandering deer or a persistent groundhog can consume more than we would imagine. It’s prudent to protect. Fencing is our friend. A covering shields from frost. To deny threats is to be foolish. Wisdom is demonstrated in what we do to recover that which is worth preserving. I have been amazed at how much damage a plant can suffer from pests and still survive to return for another season. It may be altered in some way, even permanently. Yet the lesson plants teach gardeners is not to live out of a place of fear. Instead we proceed with optimism, prune what needs pruning, compost what cannot be saved and most of all – replant.  To be a gardener is to let change happen.

I love perennials. They don’t seem to mind being replanted. I’ve learned mistakes in planning and the effects of change often can be overcome with flexibility. This allows gardeners to take a few risks, because we know we can often adjust something later. If we get the plant spacing wrong, or a set of plants grows differently than we anticipated, we can carefully make a move. There are limits to be sure. Some plants will not respond well to the change. There is often some degree of shock to the plant. Yet, we generally find long term success with a more flexible approach. Gardeners work hard to get it right the first time, but if we become inflexible we diminish our capacity for the best overall results. To be a gardener is to remain flexible.

Gardeners are accustomed to adversity. There’s a lot that can go wrong and every growing season is different. The interesting thing is you don’t often see gardeners arguing (unless it’s over the pronunciation of a big word). There is little in the way of acrimony among gardeners. We all recognize that most of what we face as challenges is outside our control. What we do seem to understand is that blame never works in a garden. It accomplishes nothing. Sometimes plants die for no obvious reason. Sometimes there’s a rock in the way. Sometimes it doesn’t rain enough. In these times we draw on our optimism; we become thoughtful about planning; we learn to let change happen; we remain flexible. We need more gardeners.

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11 responses to “The Optimistic Gardener”

  1. Lanny Little says:

    I like Thomas Jefferson’s sentiment….
    “But tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener.” Gardening definitely is a hobby that supports lifetime learning!

  2. Tim says:

    I am in agreement; what a great analogy! There is very little in the “GARDEN” that does not get solved with the proper application of compost. I am just trying to remember the word my Father used for compost?

  3. thanks for this post, Mark! At this later stage in life (unlike my childhood), I have become a passionate gardener. Working with and being in nature and nurturing beauty, health, and generosity give me great satisfaction. Gardening has also been a great way to connect with neighbors who stop by as I’m working outside.

  4. Curt Toppin says:

    I have to admit, this is the first “Mark: My Words” that I’ve been drawn to read. And I also have to admit I was pulled in more by the seemingly pessimistic teaser in the e-mail announcement.

    “How do we get from failure to renewed optimism as the cycle invariably repeats?” This does make it seem as though we are doomed to failure and false optimism.

    Never the less though, it was a great read for a recent graduate who’s looking to attempt building his own garden.

  5. Retired faculty member says:

    It is pleasant to hear that there are “Optimistic Gardeners,” and perhaps that is the best way of viewing gardening.
    I’m not a pessimist about many things, but I’ve not yet attained that passionate care for gardening that
    I hear of, or read about from other gardeners.
    Having completed graduate work in Botany & Plant Pathology and all the major supporting “plant courses,” I am fairly confident that I understand the anatomy, physiology, genetics and diseases of plants associated with gardening rather well. I see the many connections with knowledge of plants and with gardening, but I don’t enjoy gardening much more than I did as a child when my family kept a 1.5 acre garden to help sustain the 7 “gardeners” who constituted our family.
    I’ll agree that there are few things tastier than a bacon-tomato sandwich with freshly picked tomatoes from the garden; but at this point in life I’m willing to have them fresh from some garden other than my own.
    I’m glad to see there are still passionate gardeners, because in a sense there is no activity that I know of that is fully enjoyable without passionate personal envolvement.

  6. Joan Wierenga says:

    It put a smile on my face to start the day with your thoughts. I, too, am an aspiring gardener. I’ve failed often, but always seem to have renewed hope at planting time. Your analogy is right on — each day, as with each growing season, if met with optimism and a bit of planning, has unlimited possibilities. Here’s to more lush and fruitful harvests!

  7. Has anyone read Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal Vegetable, Miracle?” I just started it….

    • Retired faculty member says:

      Hi Lois,
      Yes, I’ve read and enjoyed Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable, Miracle. She is a great writer, and that is a good read of a serious gardener/family as well.
      There are some great ideas there -some that one might want to try, and others that one is glad she was the one to try without much success!

  8. Ah, yes, I am a gardener, too. Both plants and perennials, and a few of the flashier annuals.
    But I am also a teacher, and the optimistic gardener in me is as nervous about the school yaer as ever (#21 for me); will the plants on my palette emerge an grow as I hope? Will some die (fail/drop)even though I will worry about them and wonder what I could have done that I may not have done enough of to save them? What will they blossom into when their season is ripe–will they look anything like the picture on the seed package? Will they be a different color than expected; will they come back next year or germinate somewhere else.

    Mark, nice reminder that every year is a potential to be the optimistic gardener.

  9. Marlyn Rietveld-Ebbers says:

    I started in the garden as a child on the farm with my father who was a Master Gardener. Two strong memories are planting potatoes on Good Friday (only digging them was more fun)and picking strawberries – they taste really good in the garden. We also raised pickles on year in the field for Zieglers Pickle Co. That was a real challenge, picking pickles. Being a Master Gardener and a Garden Consultant reminds me that gardening is a challenge but oh what fun. There are always surprises and the weather is either a beast or a blessing. I love to find an unusual plant to surprise me and everyone who visits my garden. Plant a Gas Plant (Dictamnus albus) as it actually gives off a methane gas and if you light a match near it you will be surprised. But it is one of the plants you never try to move so when you plant it be sure that is were you want it for the duration of your garden. Last year when I had a garden walk one of my burning bushes died (how dare it) so my friend and I painted it three different colors and put a sign on it that said “I told you I was sick” Gardening is great therapy and time for prayer when on my knees. ALWAYS AN OPTIMISTIC GARDENER!